Most commercial paints release organic compounds that evaporate readily into the air. These volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which include benzene, toluene, naphthalene, methyl chloroform, and formaldehyde, have been fingered for contributing to sick building syndrome, as well as assorted short- and long-term adverse health effects, such as respiratory distress, birth defects, and cancer.
If that's not nasty enough, VOCs also emit smog-producing pollutants into the environment as the organic solvents in the paint evaporate. This odorous chemical cocktail mixes with nitrous oxides (produced from fuel combustion) to form ozone. While ozone forms a beneficent protective layer in our planet's stratosphere, it's a life-threatening pollutant on terra firma, resulting in shortness of breath, chest pain, asthma, pulmonary inflammation, and increased risk of respiratory infections. ("Good up high, bad nearby," goes a mnemonic from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.)The solution: Choose zero-VOC paints that won't off-gas hazardous fumes in your new nursery. But even zero-VOC paints have some amount of toxins, caution Dierdre Dolan and Alexandra Zissu, authors of The Complete Organic Pregnancy, so the room needs to be well-ventilated at all times; pregnant moms-to-be should also vacate the house while the room is being painted.
Here are some zero-VOC options available for slapping on your walls:
AFM Safecoat: With a history of use by the chemically sensitive, AFM Safecoat's paint formula also acts to seal in any off-gassing chemicals from previous coats of paint or building materials. (From $32.90 per gallon)
American Clay: Technically, it's a plaster, not a paint. Made in New Mexico. ($5 per pound)
Anna Sova Luxury Organics: 99 percent of its paints comprise food-grade ingredients. For a bit extra, you can mix in aromatherapy scents to have your walls smelling of fresh lemons, creamy vanilla milkshakes, or sandlewood. ($59 per gallon)
Aglaia Natural Paints: Free of any chemical solvents, the 100 percent natural paints are made from ingredients such as beeswax, carnuba wax, chalk, citrus peel oil, clove oil, mica and talcum. Made in Germany. (From $51.95 per gallon)
BioShield: 98 percent of these low-environmental-impact paints are made from renewable and naturally-derived raw materials, such as citrus peel extracts, essential oils, seed oils, tree resins, inert mineral fillers, tree and bee waxes, lead-free dryers, and natural pigments. ($40 per gallon)
Green Planet Paints: Inspired by ancient Mayan techniques, Green Planet Paints uses renewable, non-toxic clay and mineral pigments, along with a soy-based resin. ($38.50 per gallon)
The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Co.: These "historic paints" are made using buttermilk, crushed limestone, and mineral pigments, based on methods that can be traced back thousands of years to cave-wall paintings. Sold in powder form, all you have to do to prime your paint is add water and stir. ($45.95 per gallon)
Sherwin Williams Harmony: Low odor, silica-free, and antimicrobial. The waterborne formula is available as both a primer and a topcoat in eg-shel, flat and semi-gloss finishes. ($35.49 per gallon)
Difficulty level: Easy